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Pop art, the mid-20th century visual movement, shares a name with pop music
and Peter Blake has a significant place in the history of both.
His record sleeves, including most famously Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,
brought to a wider audience the techniques pop artists had developed - collages,
still lives, self portraits.
It used contemporary materials such as lapel badges,
newspaper and magazine cuttings and advertising wrappings.
Blake's work in pictures, album covers and book jackets
is often inspired by his lifelong passion for collecting objects,
'many of which featured in the show he curated at the Museum of Everything in London.'
We're sitting in this gallery and looking around this exhibition
of your own collections and others, a gallery-goer might now say, "There's a Peter Blake over there,"
or, "That work looks influenced by Peter Blake," because you seem to have a very recognisable style.
Do you have a sense of what the Peter Blake style is?
Em, I do, yes. Absolutely.
And I must say in recent years I've kind of...
..taken advantage of it.
I mean, there is a kind of Peter Blake Incorporated, almost, aspect of the work at the moment,
where I take these motifs like a heart
and a star and the rainbow
and a target
and almost claim them as my invention, which they're not.
But I think they've become recognisable as my work.
And I suppose these other ways of painting.
There are a lot of clues, really, to pick up on on it.
Some artists and writers, particularly later in their careers,
have spoken of feeling trapped by their style, trying to get outside it to do something different.
-Have you ever felt that frustration?
-Never. I've always been so diverse, from the very beginning.
I think if I'd been... A lot of artists change towards the end of their lives, don't they?
Abstract expressionists become realists and realists become abstract expressionists. In a way,
I've always encompassed a lot of things anyway.
At the moment, I'm painting collages, making some jewellery.
So if I ever became bored with one aspect, I'd move across to another.
-The tag "pop art" is almost inevitably applied. If we put your name in a search...
Godfather of, you are. Does that label ever feel irritating or limiting to you?
Not really, because again it was a tiny section of what I've done.
I think my take on the phrase "pop art",
I tell a story that a group of us were having dinner in the very early '60s,
Richard Smith, Robyn Denny, a group of painters, with Lawrence Alloway.
And he was very much a mentor of the younger artists.
And he was a critic very involved with the ICA.
We were talking about what I was doing and I explained I was trying to make an art
that was a parallel to pop music so you would read it in the same way.
And he said, "What? A kind of pop art?" And I maintain that's how the phrase came about.
I've been associated with it from the beginning
and I think the problems came up when, for instance, in America
it was never recognised really that there was any pop art in this country
until Marco Livingstone put on a show at the RA
and he reassessed the whole situation and suddenly put it all into perspective of what happened when.
And I think at that point I began to get some kind of credit.
In the way that Impressionism was originally an insult,
it's sometimes been used in a disparaging way. People use it to suggest it's not serious art
or high art.
They do and perhaps it isn't.
Certainly, it's always been a problem I've had to deal with
that I think among my fellow painters, I think often I'm not...
If you think of Frank Auerbach and me,
you would think of me as a lighter artist than Frank,
which is...I mean...
I love his paintings and he's a friend, but you would say he's a more serious artist than me
and I kind of accept that. As I say, I've been very diverse.
I haven't chosen really to take that path of very high art.
It's always had a vulgarity, it's always been populist, so I accept that.
# Well, the joke's on me I'm off to join the circus... #
Blake is 29.
Of the four, he's much the most established.
His cheerful, uncompromising comments on the modern world have been exhibited at the Royal Academy
and he's sold pictures to all sorts of organisations in America as well as in this country.
# ..made a crying clown out of me
-Goodbye, cruel world...
Pop art, it was seen as being something very modern, immediate and young,
in that same way that there's a generation now who we call young British artists
and they're getting older.
Did that become a burden that you were associated with that?
No, I think not. Because of this diversity, I've never relied on it for a living
and I've never kind of... It's never been my one aim.
So it wasn't a problem. Still isn't.
A couple of your earliest serious works, Children Reading Comics, which is from 1954,
and ABC Minors, 1955,
they seem to a viewer to open up your childhood to us, or aspects of it,
and what seems crucial is
that you were drenched in popular culture, in entertainment, from very early on.
I was seven when the Second World War started, so I was really a child of the war.
I was evacuated. Until I was 14, that was childhood.
Suddenly, the war ended, I came back to Dartford.
I got a place at Gravesend School of Art, so adulthood started instantly when childhood stopped,
in a curious way. So at 14 I was at art school. The first year at the Royal College of Art in 1953,
it was compulsory that you were in the life room the whole time.
There would have been 10 life models at any time, with crowds all around.
And then you were released from that and suddenly you were on your own.
It was at that point those pictures started, so in a way childhood was only five years ago.
So I think I...in that moment when you choose where you'll go,
I think I kind of chose to be, at that point, autobiographical.
So the picture of the two little boys is my brother and my cousin.
They're wearing their ABC Minors badges, so I was still painting about a childhood that was barely over.
And it went on from there. I think I've never lost...
-I'm still a child, in a curious way.
-I want to go into the autobiography of those paintings.
They tell us that from very early on comics in one case and cinema in the others,
-you had a great exposure to those things.
-My mum used to take me to the cinema almost every day.
Almost, probably, from the age of two.
So I would have been seeing Shirley Temple films
and the big Disney films as they came out. Snow White I would have seen when it came out.
And then as I got a little bit older she would take me in the evening.
So I had this background of the history of cinema
and I must have seen... There was a certain Bowery Boys film that was always the support film.
I must have seen it 100 times. And then the interest...
My mum and aunt took me to the professional wrestling
in 1947, so I was 15 then. And I've had a lifelong interest in that.
And circuses and funfairs are things I loved from a child.
So, you know, it was that strata of entertainment that I was,
that I started off with and have kind of stayed with.
And some of it comes out, the movies for example, very directly, with references to Tarzan, Wizard of Oz
-and those kinds of films. They have stayed with you.
They've become even stronger. In recent years, there's been
quite a lot of painting and things
about the kind of phenomena of a girl moving into womanhood.
And there are so many instances. The Wizard of Oz does it,
Snow White does it,
of children in puberty in danger and usually suddenly rescued.
Dorothy wakes up and...
And I think that's an area of life that I've been intrigued with.
Your mother's fascination with cinema.
It seems not excessive, but impressive that somebody would go virtually every day,
-but she just had that fascination.
-People did then.
I think what happened was there was no entertainment during the war
so there was an enormous surge in people going out to the cinema, football matches.
You had crowds of 60,000 every week.
So people were flooding back. We used to go to speedway, stock car racing.
All these things started up again.
Was there any sense with either of your parents of an artistic streak or anywhere in the family?
Looking back, there was. They had no chance to go to art school.
Mum came down from South Shields and I was born when she was 20.
She probably came down when she was 18 and was a nurse
and moved towards being a seamstress. And probably now would have gone to college
and done the fashion course.
And Dad was an electrician. He drew beautiful little drawings for us of things he was interested in,
like steam trains and boats.
But it's hypothetical.
Now I think they would have gone to art school, but there wasn't the chance to.
And I was very lucky. When I went at the age of 14,
there were grants, the schools were opening back up. Perfect time, really.
As soon as profiles started to be written about you, they would always say "working-class artist".
When, growing up, did you become aware of what that meant, being working class?
I think if one has to...
If you contextualise it, I think I'm upper working class, whatever that might be.
My parents worked. That accounts for that. I was never...
We were never poor,
And we lived in a nice house, so we were upper working class.
But later on you become far more aware. When you meet really upper class posh people,
you realise how working class you probably are. It's relative.
As you mentioned, you were part of that particular British generation of wartime evacuees.
Many people who that happened to have very vivid memories. Do you?
When war was declared on a Sunday morning and that speech was on the radio,
there was an immediate panic.
One person in our street had an Anderson shelter, so all the children rushed to it.
We looked towards Germany, expecting invading armies instantly, and we were evacuated the next day.
There was someone in Dartford who came from a little village in Essex,
so we were evacuated to a village called Helions Bumpstead, which is almost a comedy village.
It was next to Steeple Bumpstead, which was a comedy village name.
It's right on the intersection of Essex, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk.
Incredibly rural and remote. And then what happened was that because we were evacuated,
there was a curious system that you still took the examination of where you'd come from.
So I took the examination for grammar school all by myself in Steeple Bumpstead school.
-I didn't get in.
-But it was for Kent.
-Yes. My brother and sister both got into the grammar schools,
which were very good in Dartford. I then got into the technical school
and when I went for the interview, they said, "The art school is part of the technical school.
"If you want to go to art school, you can pop round the corner, do a drawing exam and go there."
So it was presented to me, at the age of 14, this whole thing of starting at a very definite point.
I never had any plans to be an art student. It started from then.
Another piece of luck is that you didn't specialise too soon in any one art form.
The kind of training you got, impossible now, is you were trained in almost all available art forms.
Yes, I did what was the last year of the Intermediate Examination.
That had gone back since the mid-19th century.
It's the same teaching I would have got then. You did life drawing, costumed life drawing,
silversmithing, woodwork, stone carving,
architecture, anatomy, and my chosen craft was Roman lettering,
which was very much a discipline.
So that was the Intermediate, then I did the commercial art course.
The thing is about that, I only did half the course,
so, in a way, even now I'm a kind of rogue designer
because I don't...I don't know what I would have learnt in the second part.
I did typesetting and Roman lettering and I got halfway through,
but I do things, both as a painter and as a graphic designer, because of my background
that if I was a real painter, I wouldn't do and if I was a real graphic designer I wouldn't do.
Luckily, I have this rogue element.
And also lucky, that very broad training has led, as you referred to, to the variety of your work.
It has. Certainly in printmaking.
I mean, both those disciplines in later life I went back to.
Having been taught wood engraving,
in the early '70s, I retook it. I thought I'd like to do it again
and I got books and I vaguely remembered how to hold the engraving tool.
I got books on how to do it, I did some practice blocks
and then I cut a portfolio called Side Show.
They're incredibly detailed. I don't know how I did them.
There's a strong sense in what you've said of being an accidental artist,
other people making the decisions directing you to art, then painting.
Was there a point at which ambition kicked in and you started to think, "I really want to do this"?
I wanted to be a painter, once I was at art school. But I wanted to be a painter anyway.
That's what was so exciting. My teacher said, "You'll never make a living." Not me particularly,
but nobody at that point would make a living being a painter.
So you'd do the commercial art course and you'd got that to fall back on.
As the graphic designers were going through my work, I'd sent one little oil painting of my sister.
Sir Robin Darwin happened to be sitting on that selection committee at the Royal College of Art
and said, "I think we ought to show this work to the painting committee," and it was taken over
and they accepted me.
Obviously, counter histories are difficult and sometimes futile,
but you must have reflected if you had gone to grammar school.
Do you think it would have come out in some way, the art?
I mean, who knows which direction anyone might go in?
I was once asked what I would do if I wasn't a painter
and after deep thought I went through maybe I would have worked in wood in some way
and then I decided I would have been a professional wrestler. So who knows where one might have gone?
-Are there painters who don't like painting?
-Well, it's hard work.
-I'm sure it's mentally hard as well.
-Well, it's a strain.
It's a very nerve... I mean, I haven't done it.
Normally at home I go through a whole ritual
where I dust the table and polish it and I lay out the paints and I get everything ready
-and I put a record on and I walk around with it. It's like a fighter.
-You build up to it.
When you started out, did you have a theory of art, a kind of manifesto in your head?
-Or was it all just instinct?
-I had a good backing of history of art
by the time I started to paint.
I knew pretty much about painting. I knew I was a figurative painter,
I knew that I was interested in the Magic Realists in New York.
I had my influences.
And my fellow painters in the year ahead of me were Frank Auerbach and Joe Tilson.
So I was also aware of the seriousness of painting.
In my year was... was Leon Kossoff
and then the following year was Richard Smith and Robyn Denny.
So all around me were all these other kinds of art going on, so I was aware of the Abstract Expressionists.
And I think if you are a painter,
you...you automatically go where you're taken almost.
I knew I was a realist painter.
I always had this ambition to be an Abstract Expressionist
and I finally dealt with it many years later and did a picture
called Am I Too Late To Be An Abstract Expressionist?
I tried it, splashed some paint on.
I suppose it's like a kind of track almost that you get onto and it leads you through.
You almost don't make the decisions. You just find you're on a path.
One path from the 1950s and '60s that goes through your career is the use of collage
in many famous pieces. It seems to me that that was increasingly part of this great stream
of competing images - TV and advertising and movies and magazines.
And that in a way you wanted to reflect that, the kaleidoscope of images.
I was actually told at a very specific time about collage.
Richard Smith, who I shared a flat with, taught me about Kurt Schwitters.
He said, "He picks up bus tickets," so for years I always included a bus ticket.
I felt that a collage always had to have a bus ticket in it.
But once it was offered to me as a medium, I embraced it and I'm still using it to this day.
I think it's not easier than painting, but it's...
In a way, it's using another material and it's using found art
and the very early collages were exactly like Schwitters'.
I would find a bit of wood and a bus ticket and maybe some sweet wrapping
and make these little tiny collages.
And it's gone on from then where now I'm making a kind of collage on the computer.
I can't do it, but we...
We've done a whole recent series called The Butterfly Man, six feet by five, and designed on the computer.
-It's exactly the same technique.
-You say that you can't do it,
but you could, presumably?
There isn't time for me to get really proficient. I don't want to just play with it. And I'm a Luddite as well.
I don't wear a watch, don't have a mobile phone and there's no way I'll ever work a computer.
In one of those early collages, On The Balcony,
another thing that collages do is put art within popular culture or vice versa.
So you have magazine covers in that and that was one thing going on in the '60s which was useful for you -
-the rise of the magazine.
-It's interesting you say it's a collage. It's a painting.
-No collage at all, but that's one of the art games I've played with myself.
The sort of trick playing of making a collage look like a painting
and sometimes making a painting be like a collage.
-I know you know it's a painting...
-..but it's interesting that you called it a collage.
But what I was doing with that painting, it was a set subject at the Royal College of Art.
You were given two choices. I recall that the other choice was the story of Lot, a biblical story.
Or On The Balcony. So I researched and found all the "on the balconies" that I could
and then presented them with three children sitting on a bench holding up magazine versions.
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Her Royal Majesty.
-There she goes Her Royal Majesty
-She's the Queen...
This picture is an oil painting.
There are about 27 different versions of On The Balcony in it.
When I did this picture, people said, "Why did you bother to paint them? Why didn't you stick them on?"
You just can't win.
So that was the reason for that particular painting,
but by then in the Air Force it was part of my week to go to a little house on the aerodrome
and buy Picture Post. So right from the beginning I've loved magazines, and still do.
That's the other social subset you belong to, apart from evacuees - the National Service generation.
Was that a happy time or just an inconvenience?
It was an inconvenience. I'd already got in to the Royal College. I had this to look forward to.
I didn't have an awful time. You'd be 30 men in a Nissen hut.
There would be nights with fights and play fights and beds being turned over, pillows thrown.
I would blissfully sleep through it. I was incredibly shy until then.
And suddenly to be with 30 men, you can't be shy.
There's no way you can be shy, so it was good for that. I met people I wouldn't have met otherwise.
And you come out of the Second World War and we're moving into the Cold War era.
Did you believe, as many people did at that time, that you'd end up, your generation, fighting a war?
I was in the Air Force at the time of the Korean War.
It was unlikely I would have gone. I was a teleprinter operator.
I think it just overlapped. I was in from '51 to '53.
So the possibility was there.
And certainly the possibility that there would be a war with Russia
was very much in the air.
But I didn't ever think I would be fighting. Luckily, I was too young to fight in the World War
and I never envisaged I would actually be a fighting machine.
-And you never went to the opposite extreme of being a pacifist or conscientious objector?
And David, to his credit, David Hockney did.
And he had horrible jobs in hospitals for his two years.
And some of the other artists, some went to great lengths not to do it.
There was a trick of pretending you were gay
and a couple of people shot their toes off, I think. A lot of people pretended they were mad.
I kind of didn't bother. I didn't want to shoot a toe off.
I just accepted that I would do the National Service. I had the Royal College to look forward to.
It was a missing two years, but it was OK. I travelled a bit.
I went to Belfast, I went to some nice places in the West Country. It was OK.
One of the key early paintings, Self-Portrait With Badges, which I've always liked a great deal,
there are many things going on there. It's technically striking.
You get portraits within a portrait in an almost Magritte way.
What led you to that painting?
I was doing it specifically to send to the John Moores competition in 1961.
And I think the idea, in a way, was almost to present myself...
It was going back to... to Children With Badges.
At that point, an adult wouldn't have worn a collection of badges.
They would have worn one badge, you know, if they were in the Women's Institute or something.
I think what was interesting about it, which is the point you're making,
is that the badges kind of added information.
Curiously, it's false information because I only had those badges.
I'd only collected, like, 20.
One of them said, "I'm madly for Adlai" and I don't think I even knew who Adlai Stevenson was!
So some of it is false information,
but some... I like Elvis and I was holding an Elvis magazine with Elvis talking to Tuesday Weld.
So hints about what I was interested in were coming out.
The Elvis identification was real?
Again, he isn't my favourite rock'n'roller.
I prefer Chuck Berry and Little Richard and the Everly Brothers,
but if you're painting about icons,
you have to take the chief icon
so if it's a blonde actress, it's got to be Marilyn Monroe.
'If it's a young French actress, it's got to be Brigitte Bardot.'
This is like living in Girls' Town.
If it's a rock'n'roller, it's got to be Elvis. So I accepted that he is the main motif, the main idol.
And then I've got a big collection of Elvis material
and I've made quite a lot of art including him.
One of the very early pop art pictures was two transfers that you got in Boyfriend magazine
of Elvis and Cliff. Well, I was only a Cliff fan for about a day, I think.
I saw him at Chiswick Empire
when he was really young and he was brilliant.
As soon as he did Living Doll, I stopped being a fan.
Why such an extreme reaction?
It was a horrible song!
The other striking thing about that Self-Portrait With Badges is you were already 29 at the time.
And yet you're entirely recognisable as you are now.
Do you paint yourself slightly older or was that accurate?
I think probably... Clearly, I've changed a lot,
but I've more or less got the same hair and more or less got the same beard. It's got longer and shorter
and it's greyer now, but I haven't changed that much.
From very early on there are paintings that are abandoned or unfinished.
You've always had a very fluid attitude to what is meant by completed with a painting.
Yes, I think I've had this attitude that everything is always in progress.
And in a curious way
I very rarely have completed a picture to my intentions.
If I'm doing a portrait, I would paint the eye
and then each eyelash and then I'd get involved with whether there was a piece of dust on the eyelash.
So it's infinitesimal. In a way, I never achieve what I set out or what I see in my mind.
So always everything is in progress.
I never abandon anything. There might be pictures in the studio that by now I know I'll never finish,
but they're in progress still.
I'll never make the decision. Only that will be decided when I stop.
-Although you have made the decision that they won't be finished.
-Well, usually they have to go.
I mean, with Self-Portrait With Badges, Robyn Denny arrived with the van
that was taking them all and I was still working on it. They carried it out and drove it to Liverpool.
But if you look at the shoes in that, one is painted, the other is very loosely painted.
There's a little strip of detail. That was all I had time to do.
So I accepted the unfinishedness of it and I think it's become part of recognising what I do.
A good example to me is the 1962 Beatles,
where George Harrison isn't, in fact, finished, is he?
None of them are, really. Again, it must have been time running out.
What happened with that painting, in each corner there's a little white empty panel.
My intention was to get them to autograph it.
Paul was the first person to see it
and without actually refusing to autograph it, he managed to leave without autographing it.
I think he wasn't flattered by the way I painted him.
Then there was no point in trying to get them after that.
But it's the same phenomena.
There are usually areas left unpainted.
And some of the classic dates that are given at the end of a painting, it's an astonishingly wide period.
A Mad Tea Party At Watts Tower, 1968 to 1992,
which is 24 years, isn't it?
-But during that period there would be years when you wouldn't go near it?
The longest time was the portrait of David Hockney in the Spanish interior.
That I started
in, I think, '64 and I think I finished that...
..probably it was about thirty years.
But I wouldn't be working on it all the time. Again, it's not finished!
I could have it back and work on it some more.
I wondered in terms of inspiration. Can it only happen while you're painting? In a restaurant,
-you wouldn't think of a detail for a painting?
-I might. I keep notebooks.
I always carry a notebook and I take notes.
I don't think I've ever had an uncontrollable urge
where I've leapt from the dinner table and ran back to the studio.
I'm sure there are artists who have. I've never done that.
In your notebooks, you write down words or sketches?
Yes, little drawings and lists of things.
I've become an almost obsessive list maker and if I think of a series of words or an idea
or something I might paint in the future, it's a memory aid, really.
Apart from the connection with pop art, another connection that always comes up is The Beatles
because of the painting and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
A lot of people who hung out with The Beatles suffered the delusion they were an honorary fifth Beatle.
Did you ever have that yourself?
Well, I suppose, in a curious way, I'm still very close friends with Paul
and went to his son James's birthday party last week,
so only a couple of days ago we were round the piano having a sing-song with Paul McCartney,
so I would count myself as a friend.
And I talked at length to Olivia Harrison.
If George were alive, he would be a friend.
Ringo and I have never particularly got on.
And John, I would say I was a friend of them, yeah.
And John had quite a strong artistic side, didn't he?
He did, absolutely. He was at the art school.
The first time we met,
in the early '60s,
it couldn't have been long after that particular John Moores competition we talked about in '61,
and I won the Junior Prize, which is artists under 35.
And it came up in conversation, the painting. He said, "You shouldn't have won. Stuart Sutcliffe should."
So right from the beginning, he was abrasive. But that was the way he was, part of his personality.
And he was a very interesting, nice man.
That period, the '60s and The Beatles, is now a fabled period.
Did it feel like that at the time? Did you think these were extraordinary times?
You were aware that exciting things were happening. It was very much a renaissance, a rebirth.
I suppose the other answer to that is that I've never, ever done any drugs.
I've never smoked a joint or had any drugs,
and that was an integral part of the '60s, really.
I remember an evening with people who were literally on an LSD trip.
They came to my studio and said, "You've got to take LSD! Your life is incomplete."
So I've had people begging me to take drugs and not.
So I missed that whole aspect.
I wondered about that. A lot of artists and musicians were tempted
because they thought it improved their art, psychedelic art. You were never tempted at all?
I was tempted, but I never accepted.
And I think part of that was possibly technical.
It was smoking. I had smoked as a kid and stopped when I was 12.
I'd kind of forgotten how to smoke. When I was passed a joint, I was embarrassed that I'd do it wrong.
Then, by chance, the next time I chose not to do it, but it was partly technical.
# Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band... #
One of the clearly iconic works, the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover,
how did that come about?
The Beatles had commissioned a cover already and it had been done by Simon and Marijke,
who later painted the front of the Apple shop. It was a very psychedelic, kind of fairyland cover.
Robert Fraser saw it and Robert was a great friend of both the Beatles and the Stones
and was my art dealer at the gallery I was with at the time.
And he said, "In years to come, it'll just be another psychedelic cover.
"Why don't you do a cover with 'a fine artist'?"
And he said, "Why don't you use one of my artists?" He recommended me.
They'd already got the concept of being Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
and that was to do with the fact that they felt they couldn't ever tour as The Beatles again,
but maybe they could tour as Sgt Pepper. They knew they couldn't, but it was a concept.
I think Paul had already had the kind of idea of them being in a park.
And my main contribution was to add this kind of magic crowd.
If we did it by making cut-outs and eventually using waxworks, we could choose who their fans would be.
-I then asked John, I asked them all to give me a list of people.
I can't remember them all. That was a guru and that's Aleister Crowley,
-Mae West, Lenny Bruce...
-And Stockhausen. That was one of John's choices, I think.
I think it's... I'm not quite sure, but I think it's Jung, probably.
-The whole thing has always been wreathed in mystery.
We didn't do it. It just... When there were rumours that Paul was dead and this was a stand-in,
one of the rumours was that because this hand was above his head, it was the sign that he'd died.
In fact, it's Issy Bonn waving to his fans!
-Did you ever listen to any of the music?
-I did. I was in the studio.
Most evenings we would go in and hear what they were doing.
I mean, you have incredible memories of going in and seeing John in the corner
just doing the kind of hellos for one of the songs.
Or an evening when we went into the foyer of Abbey Road
and there was a great big carpet laid out and George was sitting round it with about 10 Indian musicians.
And he leapt to his feet and so did they and we met them.
We walked through and they carried on recording George's song, the Indian-inspired song.
And one particular night, Paul said, "Come back to the house
"and listen to this song Lovely Rita Meter Maid." So we heard it the day it was recorded.
Particularly given John's strong views on art, when the art work was revealed to them,
was that a tense moment?
They didn't ever really...
I mean, in a way, they've never said thank you. They didn't respond that much.
We were paid £200 and Robert Fraser, who was probably stoned out of his mind anyway,
signed the contract and signed away any rights I had. Certainly I had no royalties.
But he also signed away the copyright, so people write to me for permission to do something
-and I have to refer them to The Beatles' management.
-Does that make you angry?
-Over the years I've been angry.
-You could have made tens of millions.
-Oh, if Robert had said,
"They'll give you a penny for each record..." I mean, Paul is a multi-multi-multi-millionaire.
And I only once have kind of touched half a million.
So I'm not... I suppose that is rich to a lot of people,
but it's not compared to The Beatles. I could have been very rich.
Do you ever talk about it with Paul?
No. In a way, I think the friendship is more important.
He perhaps should have talked to me, but I wasn't going to say, "Look, Paul,
"why don't you make up for it and give me some money?"
And now I'm resigned to it, so in a way, emotionally, it's gone. It's not a worry.
We talked about the origins of the term pop art and it was very strongly used in America.
I'm interested in your relationship particularly with Andy Warhol.
There's a certain overlap with the Marilyn Monroe images. Was he an important figure?
He wasn't an influence, no.
We never got on. We met about eight times and he hardly spoke.
I, believe it or not, then didn't speak that much.
The first time, he took me all round The Factory and showed me everything that was going on.
And the last time he came over and had a show.
He painted a British show of dogs.
Especially for London.
And Michael Chow gave a dinner for him at Mr Chow's
and we were all upstairs at the other end of the room
and at one point Michael came over and said, "Andy said he'd love to meet you," as though we'd never met.
I said, "Come on! We've met eight times. We've never had anything to say. I'm not going to come over."
And now I think that was so stupid and churlish and I wish I'd gone over and said hello again.
There's much argument even now over Warhol's reputation with detractors and defenders.
-Where do you think he ranks artistically?
-Oh, now I think he's one of the greats.
I mean, the great icons are Andy's Warhol, Andy's Elvis,
Lichtenstein's early battle pictures.
And I don't much like Lichtenstein, but they are great pop art icons.
Your British near contemporary, David Hockney,
there's a conversation with him through your work. There are various pieces.
That is an artistic friendship, that one.
It's both an artistic friendship and just a friendship.
I've done Desert Island Discs. I did it with Roy Plomley and then again with Sue Lawley.
The first time they said, "What would you like your luxury item to be?" I said, "Can it be David Hockney?"
They said, "A David Hockney?" I said, "No, can I take David Hockney?
"We're good friends. We could talk about art on the island and we could draw together."
And they said, "No, you can't take a person," So that's the level of our friendship.
The Brotherhood of Ruralists,
which was the second big movement you were involved with,
Pop Art and a more formal movement...
Was that a conscious change of direction after the '60s?
This was the '70s. You wanted to do something different?
It came out of that. My life is very much split into decades.
And literally at the end of the '60s, there was...
It wasn't a direct feeling - "oh, weren't the '60s great? Let's have a change."
But I think people were tired and a lot of people moved out from London.
It turned into that kind of self-sufficiency mood of the '70s.
And we were part of that.
I went to see David Inshaw and through David we met Graham Arnold
who was at the college at the same time as me.
We were having dinner one night, a group of us,
and talking art and talking about the Pre-Raphaelites.
I think it came up, "Which Pre-Raphaelite would you have liked to have been?"
"I would have liked to have been John Everett Millais."
In a way, it came out of that talking.
We had a meal on each solstice, so in the winter we would have an indoor feast.
In the summer, we would have a picnic.
And finally, we actually gave it a name and became a group and had a manifesto.
And at that point, art politically, it was very unpopular.
Our manifesto was that love was a reason to paint, sentimentality...
The word "sentimentality", which is a filthy word in the art world,
was a valid reason to make a painting,
so we got a lot of stick from the critics and we answered back.
Brian Sewell had a concerted attack on Kitaj and Hockney and I for years.
He seems to have eased up now, but he would write a review of somebody else
and then end it by saying, "But they're nowhere near as bad as the Kitaj exhibition."
He cam... You know, he had a campaign against us.
But it was his job to. He worked for The Standard.
I think if he wasn't nasty, he would have lost his job, but that's by the bye.
It came to a natural end for me when Jann Haworth and I separated in '79.
I came back to London, so by definition...
A ruralist is a city person who moves to the country,
so by definition, I'd come back, so I was no longer...
-The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was quite a dangerous model to take.
-It had led to terrible sexual complication and fallings-out and everything.
In a way, the Ruralists didn't quite follow that, but it got complicated.
A series of works in the 1990s,
Exhibition of a Rhinoceros in Venice
and the Madonna of Venice Beach series...
They're bringing a lot of what we talked about together.
They bring together the two sides - your knowledge of classical art, but also modern art.
They are a blurring of those two things or a conversation.
I was the third artist-in-residence at the National Gallery,
so the first thing I did was walk the whole of the National Gallery.
There was one particular picture called Exhibition of a Rhinoceros in Venice by Longhi.
I'd been doing the Venice Beach pictures,
so I thought I could place it in Venice Beach, California.
So that's a good start. I can go in on the first day and start that picture.
So it takes... I changed the rhinoceros,
but the first element of the crowd I copied directly from Longhi's painting.
And they're obviously dressed in 17th century Venetian clothes with masks on,
but the next layer of crowd is roller-skaters
and a bunch of gay men
who are kind of laughing at the Venetians,
so a whole story evolved of a rhinoceros in Venice and that was a very good starting point.
By this stage of your life as an artist, almost 60 years of work,
is the technique pretty much established or do you come up against things that you can't do?
Um... My actual way of painting...
I mean, in some way, you learn the business.
The first day you paint, you've got this stick in your hand with hairs on the end
and you've got this surface,
and you don't know that red and yellow, if you mix them together, make orange.
You quickly learn the techniques. You're taught the techniques. Luckily, I was.
So you quickly reach a point of skill and that develops,
but with my actual painting style, I think it's developed because I've got older.
I've got better, I think.
And I'm very much aware now of the unfinishedness of the pictures in the '50s, '60s and '70s,
so I do tend to complete them now to a certain level standard.
I never attain the... the finish I see in my mind which we've talked about,
but they're equally unfinished, if you see what I mean.
But I've got better, I think.
Celebrity has been one of your subjects. We live in a culture that's drenched in celebrity now,
reality TV, blogging and so on.
Are you alarmed by the way we've ended up in modern culture?
Some elements of it.
I mean, about five years ago, I saw one minute of The X Factor.
I was so horrified by this kid being abused by these horrible people,
I mean, people who shouldn't be auditioning anyway,
so I very much dislike that kind of celebrity.
I think footballers are paid too much.
I admire their skill and I'm still a football fan,
but I think that element of celebrity probably isn't good for them,
so there's a whole element of, of...
I don't know quite how to put it. ..vulgar celebrity that I don't like.
But I adore someone like Kate Moss who is a celebrity and a character.
So I suppose I choose my celebrities.
There should be your level of fame you achieve either through achievement or looks
or whatever it might be or having a good voice and the level's gone all wrong.
People are famous who shouldn't be.
The modern art market has become commercially huge,
astonishing sums being paid for works of art.
-Do you ever feel uncomfortable about that?
-I've never been involved with it.
I've always happily gone along in a kind of middle area
where...where I've never been...
Well, I have been broke, but I've never...
I've always done quite well and I've never done very well.
It's only really in the last two years that I've become financially secure,
mainly through printmaking.
There's an area where I can make a print and it sells and I make some money from it and that's very nice.
The paintings have... They're just beginning to... A few have sold for a lot of money.
So maybe I'm about to touch that area,
but I've never been...
It's never been a problem, earning too much.
In general, are you competitive with other artists?
It is a competition, yes.
You think you're better than some people and not as good as others.
But not now.
I announced my retirement at the age of 65, a conceptual retirement.
It wasn't a retirement from work,
but it was a retirement from avarice... And jealousy was one of those things.
So I'm now not jealous of other artists.
To answer your question directly, in that manifesto,
I stopped being competitive and jealous and all those art world things.
But professionally, you're always competing.
In the show Homage 10 x 5,
I've chosen ten artists
and I'm making five pieces in homage to each of them.
One of them is Rauschenberg,
so in a way that's about competition and respect and homage.
When you say you've conceptually retired from things like jealousy,
in reality, psychologically, when so-and-so gets amazing reviews or reputation
or sells for 40 million dollars...
I'm thrilled, I'm thrilled.
I mean, really, something worked. I mean, a transformation happened.
And I can't think of anyone I'm jealous of at the moment.
-In that list of ten, Damien Hirst is in there.
-Which would surprise some people.
Kingsley Amis said in literature that one generation had to despise the generation that came after them,
the old had to despise the young,
but the YBAs which some of your generation do quite openly hate, you don't.
It's interesting. It's an interesting question because I absolutely don't hate.
I mean, I think I made a point of being their friend.
I didn't need to be their friend and they didn't need me as a friend,
but I went in the other direction to despising them and a lot of them still are my friends.
And I felt...
I've tried to describe it as a kind of duty almost.
When I was a young artist, I remember when Francis Bacon, who was a friend,
but was a bitchy old queen who yelled at me or something,
so you remember all this stuff.
And I decided I didn't want to not like them
and probably went the other way and kind of befriended them and supported them. Not that they needed it.
But Young British Artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin,
were they properly respectful towards you?
Yeah, I think so. Damien went to Leeds to art school.
In Leeds, they have my picture called Window
which is a deep box
that hangs on the wall, it has a wax head and curtains
and pictures behind the curtains,
so to look into it, you've got to become a voyeur
and you've got to get very close.
You're suddenly very aware of this wax head as a real head,
so he'd seen that and admitted to being influenced by it.
Yeah, I think... I don't know what they say behind my back.
I'm sure some of them say, "Silly old fart, he's stupid," or whatever,
but, um...no, I think there's respect, yeah.
And having announced your conceptual retirement at the age of 65,
do you contemplate ever actual retirement or will you just keep going?
I'll keep going. Since then, at the age of 75, I announced that I was into my late period.
I mean, the idea of that is that I don't want someone, when I've gone,
deciding that my late period started whenever,
so it's started already.
I did have an idea to sign everything and make a stencil saying, "Late period picture number one..."
I haven't actually done that, but again it's a kind of...
..a realignment of my attitude to things
and in a way, in your late period, you can go completely barmy.
I mean, Picasso did all those extraordinary late erotic pieces,
so I've given myself another excuse to be naughty and to do what I want to do. And I'm enjoying that.
Do you have any specific plans as to how you'll go barmy like Picasso in your late period?
I've done it. Yeah, I'm there. Certain things have happened already.
Which are the barmy ones?
Um... It's hard to be specific. I think it's a mood, rather than a particular...
-But it's a total freedom just...?
-Yeah, total freedom.
Both mentally and psychologically and aesthetically.
It's complete freedom from whatever the pressures were before,
a freedom from critics, from finance.
Luckily, I'm now financially secure, so it's a freedom from that in a way.
And it doesn't matter what the critics say any more. It's not going to affect me any more.
When you're young, when you've done five pictures
and someone comes along and kicks the shit out of one of them, it is hurtful.
Now it doesn't matter.
How much do you care about posterity as to what critics will say in the future,
as to which paintings will hang in which galleries?
I'd like to be remembered, but again that little phrase sets me off on another path.
I mean, which paintings in which galleries?
My relationship with the Tate, I've never, ever had a picture in Tate Modern,
unless they haven't told me.
There was a time about a year ago,
we went to Tate Britain and there were five shows on that I could have been in.
There was British Pop Art In The '60s that I wasn't in.
There was a show of figurative painting that I could have been in.
They'd done that first show of drawings from the collection which I easily could have been in.
I literally could have been in every category and I wasn't represented,
so my relationship with that particular part of the art world isn't comfortable.
I resent not being represented better.
-Does that answer your question or was that a mad tirade?
-No, it absolutely does.
-Sir Peter Blake, thank you.
-It's been a real pleasure.
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